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Feb. 20, 2024 |  By: Jason Hancock - Missouri Independent

GOP-backed judicial bill sunk by bipartisan opposition in the Missouri House


By Jason Hancock - Missouri Independent

Republicans and Democrats joined together Monday night to sink a wide-ranging judicial bill that managed to stir up enough policy concerns and internal grudges to keep it from winning anywhere near enough votes to clear the Missouri House.

The legislation, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Rudy Veit and backed by the chamber’s GOP leadership, including a litany of provisions that have found success in the House in the past. 

But on Monday, the bill ran into a buzzsaw of opposition that resulted in only 57 of 111 Republicans and one Democrat voting in support. 

For Republicans, there were myriad reasons for voting no, said state Rep. Ben Baker, a GOP lawmaker from Neosho who opposed the bill Monday. 

There was confusion about language in the bill that some felt was too ambiguous, he said, and others had heartburn about a few of the provisions that they felt hadn’t been vetted thoroughly enough. 

The bill, or some version of it, will likely return later in the session, Baker said. 

Democrats, meanwhile, keyed in on a provision that would exclude grandparents from a required background check when seeking guardianship of a child with a developmental disability.

State Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat who previously worked as an adoption specialist for the Jackson County Children’s Division, said she’s fought off similar proposals “for six years” out of concern that children could be taken from their parents and put into the custody of someone who might abuse them. 

“There are cycles of abuse and trauma, and it goes by generations,” she said. “The reason why, when I worked at the children’s division, we did background checks on grandparents and relatives was not because we assumed the worst about them. But imagine taking a child out of a parents’ home and putting them with someone who was then going to abuse and neglect them. And no, that’s not most grandparents. But it is some. I have seen it.”

Veit pushed back, noting that the bill would still require background checks if requested by the guardian ad litem for the child or is otherwise ordered by the court.

“The attorney for the child has a right to ask for a background check,” he said. 

There was also some leftover frustration among Democrats with how quickly Republicans forced the 40-page bill through the process the week before, said state Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat. 

The bill won initial passage after only 10 minutes of debate. 

Meridith said he was denied a chance to ask questions about the bill last week because he had filed an amendment seeking to implement a “red flag law,” which allows for temporary firearm removal from individuals believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

“Part of my opposition was them not letting me offer my red flag amendment or even talk about the bill itself,” Meridith said. “That was the day before the Kansas City shooting, and then we come back and they say ‘now’s not the time to talk about this while emotions are running high.’ Well, we tried to talk about this last week and you wouldn’t let us.”

Merideth also raised concerns about a piece of the bill targeting strategic lawsuits against public participation, more commonly referred to as “SLAPP.” 

Anti-SLAPP laws provide defendants a way to quickly dismiss meritless lawsuits, often filed by big companies or wealthy individuals seeking to suppress speech they don’t like. 

Merideth brought up public statements and social media posts by the Missouri Senate Freedom Caucus accusing without evidence an Olathe man of being an undocumented immigrant behind the mass shooting last week in Kansas City. 

“They said defamatory things,” Merideth said. “And here we are debating a provision that would give an extra out for people sued for defamation if it’s a matter of public importance. No, that needs to be vetted.”

There has been a lot of “Republican propaganda of late that has defamed people,” Meredith said, pointing to huge payouts in defamation cases against Fox News and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani

“I don’t want to be protecting them with this change,” he said, adding that he isn’t positive the bill would apply in those instances but he couldn’t be sure since he couldn’t debate the issue last week. 

Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the anti-SLAPP law has been a priority of her organization for years.

News organizations and individual journalists, she said, can face financial threat from a groundless defamation case brought by a subject of an enterprise or investigative story.

But Maneke said she has also represented individuals who were not members of the media and were forced to settle frivolous defamation lawsuits simply because they couldn’t afford to take the issue to court. 

Anti-SLAPP laws, she said, provide a quicker process for filing motions to get a timely dismissal. 

According to the conservative nonprofit Institute for Free Speech, there are 15 states with a comprehensive anti-SLAPP law on the books.

“The benefit of an anti-SLAPP statute is you can file this motion,” she said, “and everything stops and the judge has to make a decision about your First Amendment rights.”